Home > Culture > People > Cover Story: Kenji Chai & Red Hong Yi embody the spirit of La Panthère in their craft, in themselves and in each other
Cover Story: Kenji Chai & Red Hong Yi embody the spirit of La Panthère in their craft, in themselves and in each other

In our latest digital cover, two artists with an unconventional approach — graffiti whiz Kenji Chai and Red Hong Yi, “the painter without a paintbrush” — offer some insight into their craft, all while embodying the twofold spirit of Panthère de Cartier, powerful and elegant.

“This is like when the street dog meets the poodle,” Kenji Chai jokes as he’s getting dressed up on the set of the shoot, which sends our other cover personality, Red Hong Yi into a fit of laughter. It might seem ironic that Kenji refers to himself as the street dog while donning an all-white ensemble, accessorised with pieces from the Panthère de Cartier collection. Yellow and white golds, onyx and garnets glitter as Kenji strikes a panther-like pose, and Red stifles a giggle on the makeup chair as she watches her friends antics.

For the uninitiated: graffiti artist Kenji’s tag is Chaigo, the cheeky turquoise dog (whose name is a clever blend of his surname “Chai” with “狗 gǒu”, the Chinese word for dog). Chaigo greets me on my daily drive to work as I merge into the ever-busy Federal Highway — and while the cartoon dog is undeniably cute, there is a much deeper story behind Chaigo.

“Not many people know this, but Kenji felt like a stray dog when he first came to KL,” Red shares, “which is actually how Chaigo came about. In that sense, Chaigo is Kenji’s ‘eyes’ on the street. On top of struggling with his career, he felt anonymous. Just another face in the crowd, trampled upon, and so he had to learn to survive. Chaigo is meant for people who feel this way in a big city — a reminder to keep on surviving and to be resilient in the face of adversity. Fun fact, Kenji is also a big dog lover, and he regularly donates to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)!”

Red and Kenji’s friendship is rooted in mutual respect, and goes beyond the art scene. (Red and Kenji wear pieces from Panthère de Cartier.)

In Panthère de Cartier, the panther takes centre stage. A wild, magnetic, feline contrast to the artists’ canine energy, but still capturing the same twofold spirit: bold and beautiful, powerful and polished. This versatility is what defines the collection, and thanks to visionary Jeanne Toussaint or “La Panthère” as she was known for, the animal has been fleshed out into three dimensions, and transformed into a symbol of independence.

While most artists — our two cover personalities included — are familiar with independence, only a handful understands the term ‘versatile’. That spotlights the incomparable Red. Known as “the artist who paints without a paintbrush”, Red is gifted with the ability to create anything out of anything.

“When I learned about Hong Yi, I heard she was a portrait artist and thought, ‘Okay, well, many people have drawn portraits.’,” Kenji says, recalling his first impression of Red. “But then I saw the way she presented them using different materials, and that was really impressive. Hong Yi came from an architecture background, so she uses engineering as an art form. That’s what caught my eye. Many artists follow the traditional path, with drawing or watercolour. But the medium that Hong Yi uses to express herself is so different, and it’s just so interesting. Every time I see her work, she’s using all kinds of things like chopsticks, tea bags, eggshells, flowers, coffee… even a basketball.”

When two artistic universes collide

In his artwork, Kenji always includes a touch of wildlife — whether in the form of greenery, or living creatures. (Kenji poses with the enigmatic panther, decked out in accessories from Panthère de Cartier.)

Kenji Chai first met Red Hong Yi — the ‘poodle’ to his street dog — some five years ago at a talk the latter was giving in CzipLee, a two-storey stationery shop in Bangsar. (At the time, it was also an artist’s hub, housing events and gatherings for fellow creatives.) Already an established artist in her own right by then, Red recalls Kenji being a little stiff and formal around her at first. The next time Red was in KL, Kenji had organised a meet-up and presented her with an invitation. From there, the two kicked off their friendship. Red is a warm and bubbly presence, bright as her name, so Kenji’s cool, laid-back persona provides the perfect complement.

“These days, he’s like a ‘bro’ to me — I call him my taikor (“big brother”) and go to him when I need motivation or encouragement,” Red muses. There are only three years between them but it’s clear that Red looks up to Kenji, both artistically and in life. “People who know him would also know that he likes to ‘lecture’ others around him. He would always ask, ‘What is your goal in life? What are you doing about it? And why are you not doing it yet?!’ He wants us to make the most with this one precious life we have.”

The term taikor can also mean “boss”, and it’s unsurprising that Red would describe him so. Tall with a resting serious face, Kenji is like a friendly giant — with a sensitive soul and huge heart to match. “On first impressions, he probably comes off as a ‘tough graffiti dude’, and those who don’t know him well might find him intimidating,” Red adds, “but he really cares for others. I still remember how during lockdown, Kenji called me up because he was concerned about friends who were feeling down. But even though he’s my taikor, he also has his ‘kiddish’ ways. I sometimes shake my head at the things he does.”

An artist has to be courageous and strong-willed in standing up for what they want to express. But at the same time, I also try to embed my work with qualities of emotional connection.”

Red on the power of vulnerability in art

(Red is accessorised with white gold pieces from Panthère de Cartier.)

It’s clear, too, that the feeling of respect and admiration is mutual. Being both Sabahan (Kenji hailing from Sandakan; Red with her roots in Kota Kinabalu), there is an unspoken connection that runs much deeper between them. Kenji recounts the very moment he was moved by Red’s passion: “Hong Yi was putting together ‘Pillars of Sabah’ in the city in 2019, and she gathered a lot of artists for the initiative project. It was a huge contribution, and regardless of the backlash or whether people might disagree with her, I could sense that Hong Yi was really trying to help out upcoming artists. She inspired me to teach others, and I’m grateful to have a more open mind, to be aware of young artists and to help them.”

Despite their vastly different approaches to art, one subject links them: the love of nature and the environment. Also in 2019, Kenji and Red partnered up on a performance art piece entitled “BURN”, sending a strong message on the wreckage brought on by forest fires. The piece saw orangutans spray-painted by Kenji, surrounded by ‘trees’ that were meticulously crafted from matchsticks by Red. After its completion, they began lighting up the matches by the bunch, and the flames licked the piece to nothing. “Visually, it was a very powerful piece, and that was what eventually led to my artwork for TIME’s Climate is Everything issue,” says Red.

This visceral depiction of nature by Kenji and Red echoes the sentiments of the Panthère de Cartier, which emphasises care in its designs, stone choice and setting: to recreate the living spirit of the creature. The concept behind the Panthère collection is not to imitate, but to celebrate nature. To breathe life into the animal and give it a real, vibrant personality.

It made me feel very calm to see the ‘blank’ landscape from the mountaintop. It got me thinking about how so many people must feel trapped in this fast-moving life, and I realised I should channel that calm energy into my art.

Kenji on the importance of nature in daily life

(Kenji sports the Panthère de Cartier ring and sunglasses, and a Cartier watch.)

Even when they’re not running in the same circles, the two artists are constantly influencing each other in their work. If spunky rule-breaker Red ever finds herself in a tight spot, Chaigo is there to bring out the inner child in her and remind her to take it easy. In fact, Kenji’s iconic dog made such an impact that Red is inspired to have her own tag. “I’m thinking of exploring the idea of my own cartoon ‘Little Red’ character, and to incorporate her into my future artwork.”

In the brief breaks during the shoot, Red sketches out Little Red for us while Kenji offers her suggestions here and there to make the character unique, like adding tiny ‘H’ and ‘Y’ markings underneath Little Red’s eyes. Red doesn’t stop there, however — she lets her hand run free, and suddenly Little Red’s eyes are asterisks and she has a ponytail.

“The way Hong Yi creates art is very experimental, which means she doesn’t even know what will happen with the medium,” says Kenji, with genuine awe in his voice. “It’s almost like a surprise to figure out the end result. It’s an innovative way to do art, and that somehow inspires me to try other ways to express my own art. Maybe I can try using my surrounding environment to add something — for example, I could include a street sign into a piece. I think it could be more fun.”

The duality of art and the artist

It’s interesting to learn that when it comes down to it, Kenji Chai and Red Hong Yi are two sides of the same coin (the coin, of course, being the art world). Besides the medium, an artist is also defined by their perspective on life and the story they want to tell. For the Panthère — an age-old icon of Cartier — the story is clear: the feline muse is personified through the collection, which exudes mysticism, duality and versatility. In other words, how you interpret the collection hinges on how you want to look at it.

Even when they’re not running in the same circles, Kenji and Red are constantly influencing each other in their work. (The pair is wearing selected accessories from the Panthère de Cartier collection.)

For Kenji, his narrative came to him as he stood on a mountaintop in Mongolia, overlooking the flatlands. “It made me feel very calm to see that sort of ‘blank’ landscape,” Kenji explains. “And then it got me thinking about how so many people must feel trapped in this life, because we live in a very fast-moving country. It makes you feel like you can’t rest. You have to keep going, and go fast. On that mountaintop, I could feel the calmness flow in me, and I realised I should channel this calm energy into my art — of course, mixed with my own style.”

The dualism between nature and urban life is very prominent in Kenji’s artwork, if you really stop to look. He always includes a touch of wildlife in each of his pieces, whether in the form of greenery or living creatures. And more often than not, you can find these works of art, vividly coloured, on the grey-old facades of office buildings. So, Kenji undertakes this quest of taking the stress out of this hectic lifestyle, positioning a slice of nature in the busiest cities. “The main ‘call’ for me will always be nature,” he adds, “because my only hope is that the next generation will still be able to enjoy it as it is, to the fullest.”

Red’s hot take is that a good artist’s story balances the duality of strength and vulnerability: “An artist has to be courageous and strong-willed in standing up for what they want to express. To do this as a career is not for the faint of heart. But at the same time, I also try to embed my work with qualities of emotional connection.” Marina Abramovic is an artist that Red looks up to, and her performance work back in 2010 is one that Red considers her greatest. “She simply sat in a chair for eight hours a day and looked into the eyes of complete strangers, for as long as they pleased. I think it just takes so much courage to allow that kind of connection to happen, especially with a complete stranger.”

interview PUTERI YASMIN SURAYA | creative direction MARTIN TEO | assisted by RONN TAN | styling COLIN SIM | photography CHEE WEI | videography THREEBOX_STUDIO | makeup RAE SEOK | hair styling JUNO KO 

Find out more about Kenji Chai and Red Hong Yi in the latest issue of LSA Digital Cover Vol. 005 HERE.

Cover Story: Kenji Chai & Red Hong Yi embody the spirit of La Panthère in their craft, in themselves and in each other

Hailing from an English Literature & Creative Writing background, Yasmin has a deep love for fiction and poetry. When she’s not writing or café-hopping, she spends most of her time in the comfort of her own room binge-watching period romances, (badly) belting out show tunes, and curating Spotify playlists to match her mood for the week.

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